Zeitoun

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Themes and Colors
Family, Community, and Home Theme Icon
Crime, Justice, and Injustice Theme Icon
Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity Theme Icon
Human vs. Natural Tragedy Theme Icon
Islam and Islamophobia Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Zeitoun, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity Theme Icon

The fact that Zeitoun owns a construction company takes on symbolic resonance in the book. As he attempts to help those stranded in New Orleans after Katrina, his efforts become another kind of rebuilding. Throughout the ordeal, he trusts that something good will come out of both his efforts and those of others—efforts that counter the corruption of the authorities. Zeitoun’s Muslim faith is crucial to his perseverance, as he puts his trust in God even after being unfairly imprisoned. But his stubbornness is also an essential part of his personality, and we learn early on that Kathy finds this quality alternately endearing and infuriating. Stubbornness turns out to be a necessary personality trait, however, and one that equips Zeitoun with the grit needed to carry on when he faces various difficulties throughout the book.

Zeitoun also must persevere through a number of events that threaten to strip him of his inherent human dignity. He is subjected to invasive bodily scrutiny by the police, and must deal with prejudice and discrimination because of his Muslim faith. The very nature of Hurricane Katrina subjects others to indignities as well, and Zeitoun feels ashamed for an old woman who feels she has lost her dignity while desperately trying to stay afloat and alive outside her home. While nature threatens to remove human dignity, Zeitoun clings to the belief that people can restore this dignity by helping each other.

Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity appears in each chapter of Zeitoun. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity Quotes in Zeitoun

Below you will find the important quotes in Zeitoun related to the theme of Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity.
Part 1: Friday August 26 Quotes

His frustration with some Americans was like that of a disappointed parent. He was so content in this country, so impressed with and loving of its opportunities, but then why, sometimes, did Americans fall short of their best selves?

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

The book has been describing some of the minor slights and instances of prejudice that Zeitoun and Kathy have suffered at work and in life in general, often due to his Syrian heritage or to their Muslim beliefs. Here, Eggers characterizes Zeitoun's relationship to his adopted country, the United States, as one of complex ambivalence. On the one hand, he is grateful to have been given the opportunity to build his own business, to create a life for himself, in a way that would have been difficult for him to do back home in Syria. But on the other hand, he finds the prejudices and small-mindedness of some Americans painful and confusing.

By describing Zeitoun's attitude as that of a "disappointed parent," Eggers emphasizes that it is not that Zeitoun finds there to be a sickness innate to America, something unresolvable. Instead he believes such beliefs and attitudes to be a stage similar to that of a teenager, who simply needs to grow up and learn to become his or her best self. Islamophobia, for Zeitoun, is not something that should necessarily characterize Americans, but rather something that they can overcome. 

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Part 1: Saturday August 27 Quotes

She knew that in Islam she had found calm. The doubt sewn into the faith gave her room to think, to question. The answers the Qur’an provided gave her a way forward.

Related Characters: Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Kathy had begun to attend a mosque and learn about Islam during a tumultuous period in her life, when she was no longer felt at home in her religion or with her family, and wasn't sure where her life was headed. Here, it is suggested in particular that the Baptist faith with which Kathy grew up was too strict and dogmatic for her: it left little room for her to question, doubt, or grow. Kathy has found the opposite to be true in Islam. She now feels inspired both by the questioning implicit in the faith as well as the answers she does think the Qur'an lends to questions of struggling and perseverance.

This section of the book is part of a broader interest in explaining one person's experience with Islam to a readership that may not be familiar with the religion beyond what is shown on the news. By describing Kathy's conversion and relationship to her faith, Eggers attempts to make it more understandable and relatable to American readers unfamiliar with Islam, and who might otherwise be tempted towards prejudice.

Part 2: Wednesday August 31 Quotes

But there was the canoe. He saw it, floating above the yard, tethered to the house. Amid the devastation of the city, standing on the roof of his drowned home, Zeitoun felt something like inspiration. He imagined floating, alone, through the streets of his city. In a way, this was a new world, uncharted. He could be an explorer. He could see things first.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Related Symbols: Zeitoun’s Canoe
Page Number: 94-95
Explanation and Analysis:

When the storm quiets down and Zeitoun is left in a flooded city, he begins to feel restless and bored. Not long after that, however, he realizes that he is not condemned to remain trapped at home indefinitely. The canoe is his ticket out of what he hates the most - doing nothing. Zeitoun's adventurous spirit has already become clear: for one, he arrived to the United States on a steamer after traveling all around the world. Now he has another chance to uncover another new world, though in quite a different context.

However, Zeitoun's romantic vision of exploring uncharted paths and floating peacefully through the city is described mainly as a contrast to what he will actually find. A devastating hurricane, of course, has just ripped through New Orleans. While Eggers doesn't portray Zeitoun as naive or uncaring, he points to Zeitoun's initial reactions both to underline his natural sense of adventure, and to suggest that few people thought that Hurricane Katrina would be devastating to the extent that it was.

Had they been in a fan boat, the noise overwhelming, they would have heard nothing. They would have passed by, and the woman likely would not have survived another night. It was the very nature of this small, silent craft that allowed them to hear the quietest cries. The canoe was good, the silence was crucial.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Frank Noland
Related Symbols: Zeitoun’s Canoe
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun and Frank have spent the day paddling around the neighborhood, helping a number of trapped residents in need. Zeitoun feels excited and purposeful - like there's a reason that he's remained behind in the city. Now, he realizes that the canoe is more than a means for him to keep from going mad while cooped up in his home. It can be used to help others as well, and, most importantly, it is ideally suited to such a task. The fan boats that have been sharing the same space as the small, unassuming-looking canoe seem important and necessary, part of an official fleet that has been dispatched to aid the recovery from the storm. But here Zeitoun recognizes that the fan boats' power is more symbolic than real, since it is too loud for its conductors to actually listen for people in need.

Mohammed’s accomplishments implied—proved, really—that the Zeitouns were extraordinary. It was incumbent, thereafter, on each and every child to live up to that legacy.

Related Characters: Mohammed Zeitoun
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback, one of many that make up the narrative of Zeitoun's time spent in New Orleans, the book uses examples and stories from Zeitoun's past to help explain some of his motivations in the present. Mohammed's life and tragic death are never far from Zeitoun's mind. Having long idolized his brother, Zeitoun never believed he could equal Mohammed's achievements: but now that Mohammed is no longer alive, he feels that he needs to sustain his brother's legacy by doing something extraordinary himself.

The book thus paints Zeitoun's motivations as complex, though realistic. He is not shown to be an entirely selfless hero: like anyone else, he wants validation from his family and community, and seeks out ways to prove that he can live up to his brother's legacy. Of course, this is not mean to take away from the admirable nature of Zeitoun's actions in New Orleans after the hurricane. It is rather to stress the complicated set of desires, dreams, and memories that work to characterize each person's motivations and to help us understand why people act the way that they do.

Part 2: Tuesday September 6 Quotes

But Zeitoun felt again that perhaps this was his calling, that God had waited to put him here and now to test him in this way. And so he hoped, as silly as it seemed, that his siblings might see him like this, on the water, a sailor again, being useful, serving God.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun has just been interviewed by a local reporter and asked about what he's been doing while in the city. Now he admits that he hopes one of his siblings will see the news broadcast and be impressed by what they see. They will realize, he hopes, that Mohammed is not the only one in the family who has completed admirable feats. Zeitoun's naturally competitive nature is evident once again here. Some of his motivations for helping others are indeed related to the social networks in which he takes part, and by which he hopes to prove himself. 

But Zeitoun also considers his task in New Orleans to be one of proving himself not only for his neighbors and family, but also for God. Zeitoun considers divine tests, such as those to be found in the Qur'an or Old Testament, to be central to his faith, and he sees this experience as something sent by God for him to fulfill and thus prove himself worthy enough. 

Part 3: Saturday September 17 Quotes

She had married a bullheaded man, a sometimes ridiculously stubborn man. He could be exasperating in his sense of destiny. […] But then again, she thought, it gave their marriage a certain epic scope.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

Kathy is remembering one particularly exaggerated example of Zeitoun's stubbornness, when he had suggested at the beach that they stroll towards a far-away rock, even when the walk ends up taking hours and becomes far more strenuous than either of them had thought. For Kathy, this anecdote is emblematic of Zeitoun's character in general. When he decides what he wants to do, nothing and no one can get in his way. Kathy tends to grow anxious over her family's safety, and yet she realizes that if Zeitoun wants to stay in New Orleans, there is no way she can stop him.

In some ways, Kathy finds this aspect of Zeitoun's nature incredibly maddening. For her it threatens to wear at the close-knit family life she has worked so hard to develop, the stability that was foreign to her for so long. Yet at the same time, Kathy admires Zeitoun's "bullheaded" character, which ensures that life around him is never boring or banal. Her frustration mingles and coexists with her admiration for this man who she feels so inextricably tied to.

Part 4: Saturday September 17 Quotes

He had risked too much in the hopes that he might do something to match the deeds of his brother Mohammed. No, it had never been a conscious part of his motivation—he had done what he could in the drowned city because he was there, it needed to be done, and he could do it. But somewhere in his gut, was there not some hope that he, too, could bring pride to the family, as Mohammed had so many years ago? […] And was this imprisonment God’s way of curbing his pride, tempering his vainglorious dreams?

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Mohammed Zeitoun
Page Number: 264
Explanation and Analysis:

Still trapped in his solitary cell, Zeitoun has the chance to return to his actions on the canoe after Katrina with a more honest, reflective eye. He recognizes that his motivations were not entirely selfless. Of course, he was motivated by a realization that there was a real need for people in the city to be rescued, and when he heard cries for help his first response was to go to their aid. But he also begins, now, to admit to himself that he wanted to live up to his brother's legacy, to do something that would be just as admirable in the eyes of his family and his community.

Now, Zeitoun continues to draw on his faith in order to understand and structure his response to his current situation. Having understood his time helping others as a kind of divine test, he now sees his unjust imprisonment as another kind of test, or even a kind of divine punishment. He wonders if his vain hopes for glory were destined to end in misery and indignity, if only so that God might show him the folly of such selfish dreams. At other moments, Zeitoun has been certain that the institutions involved are at fault for his imprisonment: now, he combines that view with another one that has more to do with his individual morality and relationship to his faith.

Part 4: Tuesday September 27 Quotes

Kathy fell apart. She wailed and screamed. Somehow this, knowing that her husband was so close but that these layers of bureaucracy and incompetence were keeping her from him—it was too much. She cried out of frustration and rage. She felt like she was watching a baby drown, unable to do anything to save it.

Related Characters: Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

Kathy has finally gotten incredibly close to knowing where her husband is and being able to contact him, or even track him down and see him. Now she knows that a court hearing will take place, but no one will give her the information about it, saying that it's "privileged information," even though she's Zeitoun's wife. Until now, Kathy has been anxious and upset, but has maintained her cool enough to do all that she can to find her husband. Now she breaks down. While Zeitoun is on the inside of the bureaucratic nightmare, she is attempting to break through it from the outside, and is coming up against just as many examples of incompetence and frustrating irrationality as Zeitoun has experienced. Kathy has fought to persevere through not knowing if her husband was alive or dead, but now this is almost worse, since she knows he is alive but cannot reach him - for no reason of her own.

Part 5: Fall 2008 Quotes

As he drives through the city during the day and dreams of it at night, his mind vaults into glorious reveries—he envisions this city and this country not just as it was, but better, far better. It can be.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 325
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun is proud of having restored over a hundred homes with his company in the years after Katrina. This passage, following a number of more sobering details about the struggles of the Zeitouns in the time following Hurricane Katrina, seeks to end the book on a more optimistic note. Indeed, Zeitoun's attitude here is portrayed as more positive, thanks to the success he's been able to regain in his professional life. For him, his job is more than a way to pay the bills: it is symbolic of his desire to change his community for the better.

Rebuilding New Orleans is of course a matter of physical, material reconstruction, but it is also, according to Zeitoun, a chance for the community to reimagine what it would like to be and how it might change. There is a chance, he thinks, that people may become more inclusive, and that if he just perseveres long enough, he will see this changes happen. Zeitoun thus remains committed to his country and smaller communities even despite the unfairness of what he went through, refusing to entirely lose hope that transformation is possible.